One of the German police officers pushed Omar, a 19-year-old boy from Syria, out the front door of the refugee shelter and onto the sidewalk. (Omar asked that his real name not be used because it might jeopardize his asylum case.)
“I am registered to live here!” the young man yelled in German as the two men walked back up the steps.
“No, you are not coming back in,” the first police officer said, pointing down the road to indicate where Omar should go. The officers then drove away, leaving Omar standing outside with his bags. It was time to pick up and move—again.
Omar is one of about 120 residents who were pressured or physically forced to leave the Bornitzstraße refugee shelter in East Berlin in October. “From a week ago, no food, no water. They cut the electricity and shut the toilets,” says Abdullah, another resident from Syria who was kicked out the same day as Omar. Abu Ahmed, a father of four whose family is displaced within Syria, left the shelter the next day. He said employees of PeWoBe, the company that runs the shelter, took his ID card and told him he could be taken to court.
While they represent a small fraction of the 55,000 asylum seekers that were registered in Berlin last year, Katharina Mühlbeyer, spokesperson for a non-profit advocacy organization called the Refugee Council, says the experiences of this group are typical of Berlin’s often opaque and arbitrary asylum system.
“It is quite possible and also usual that people get completely different promises or papers,” Mühlbeyer says. “Psychologically, it is really hard to live under these conditions where there is an administration and a certain bureaucracy, which you don’t understand and which is not transparent.”
Germany registered a record over 1 million asylum seekers in 2015. But one year later, around half are stuck in a state of suspended animation as they wait for decisions on their applications. While waiting, they are dependent on the refugee agency in their state and often have little recourse if things go wrong. Berlin, in particular, has struggled to move asylum seekers out of emergency shelters, where 20,000 of the almost 55,000 people who applied for asylum in 2015, still live. Across Germany, there are almost 580,000 asylum cases pending; in Berlin, many have already waited for more than nine months. So while EU officials celebrate a deal made with Turkey in March that has limited the number of new arrivals, many of the asylum seekers who are already in Berlin are experiencing a new chapter of uncertainty and waiting.
The problems faced by Omar’s group of asylum seekers come with a particular Berlin flavor: a mixture of administrative chaos with a dash of fraud. PeWoBe, which stands for “Professional Housing and Assistance Company,” runs this shelter and multiple more in Germany. PeWoBe is being investigated by the public prosecutor for overcharging the city millions of Euros since 2013. In August, the Berlin agency responsible for asylum seekers, the Landesamt für Flüchtlingsangelegenheiten Berlin (LAF), moved to terminate its contracts with PeWoBe entirely. The reason: leaked PeWoBe employee emails that included jokes about buying a child guillotine and a crematorium for the residents of the shelters they operate.
As of mid-November, PeWoBe was still in charge of this shelter and six others in Berlin. LAF spokesperson Sascha Langenbach could not say when a new operator would take over. In the meantime, LAF is paying for ongoing renovations at the shelter, and Langenbach said Omar and other residents had to moved to another location because of this construction.
But the residents who were kicked out tell a different story. Construction, they said, started six months ago. Along with a half dozen other residents who spoke with Quartz, Omar said PeWoBe had promised that if they squeezed into the remaining rooms during the work, they could live in the renovated quarters upon completion. But it appears now that many of these residents were eventually kicked out anyway.
PeWoBe did not respond to requests to comment.
“German law does not give you the opportunity to chose the place where you live,” Langenbach says. Asked whether he was aware that the company had stopped providing services to the residents and had removed the locks from the doors of their rooms, Langenbach said the LAF was not responsible, but did not dispute those claims.
Mühlbeyer of the Berlin Refugee Council called the escalation of the situation in this shelter unfair and unnecessary. But it also highlights the tenuous position of refugees. While LAF does have a small unit that receives written complaints, Mühlbeyer says asylum seekers often fear recrimination as they wait for a decision on their case. And moving from shelter to shelter is more than just a one-time inconvenience: It uproots people from the support structures they have found, including from language courses, which are the first requirement to eventually entering the job market. “You want to arrive somewhere,” Mühlbeyer says. “You want to settle down. You want to know where you can stay.”
The LAF initially offered residents who were kicked out their choice of three other shelters, including the one at Tempelhof Field, which houses over 1,000 asylum seekers in a former airplane hangar. Most of Omar’s group ended up at a shelter in Karlshorst, a place Abu Ahmed likened to “a prison.” There, shower facilities are located in containers outside the buildings in an open courtyard. The facility also does not provide kitchen space, which residents hoped to have access to in the newly renovated rooms at the Bornitzstraße accommodation.
Omar was lucky, however—he managed to avoid Karlshorst and now lives in one of Berlin’s new container shelters on the outskirts of the city. He says he wakes up at 5:30am every day to travel an hour and a half to his German language course, located just blocks from his old shelter. He is enrolled in the class for another six months, and a shortage of courses makes it unlikely he can find another course before then. He says he stops by the shelter every couple of days to meet friends. “I really got used to it there,” he said. “It’s like it became my house.”